Fixing Muni — and traffic

Pub date July 31, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL There is much to like and some things not to like in Sup. Aaron Peskin’s Muni reform measure, but the most important thing the measure does is demonstrate that Muni won’t get better unless the city also works on controlling car traffic in congested areas. It’s a critical policy issue that’s going to be the subject of a heated fall ballot campaign — and so far Mayor Gavin Newsom is planted squarely on the wrong side.

Nobody can dispute the motivation behind Peskin’s charter amendment: Muni is a train wreck right now, with service far below acceptable levels. Something has to change, and the way he’s proposed it, the system would get an additional $26 million in guaranteed city money, and Muni management would have some expanded ability to set performance standards and require the staff to meet them.

We would, of course, prefer that the dedicated Muni money come from some new revenue stream, not from the existing General Fund. And we’ve always believed that the supervisors and the mayor should have to sign off specifically on any Muni fare hike. But overall, a lot of what Peskin is proposing makes sense — and now that he has worked out the problems that labor initially had with the measure, it has a good chance of winning this fall.

The mayor thought so too and had endorsed the proposal — until Peskin took the critical step of adding in restrictions on downtown parking. That would undermine the plans of big developers and their allies, who want the right to add a lot more parking spaces and curb openings for their luxury condo projects downtown.

The developers, with the help of Gap founder and power broker Don Fisher, are trying to get their own ballot measure passed, one that would greatly expand downtown parking. That’s exactly the wrong direction in which San Francisco should move.

In fact, what the city needs is a policy directive aimed at reducing the number of cars downtown and keeping the total number in the city from rising. Current planning documents and projections are all based on the assumption that more cars will pour into the city over the next 10 years, and that may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it doesn’t need to be.

San Francisco is one of the most environmentally aware cities in the world. And as more residential development comes in downtown, there’s absolutely no reason why this city can’t stick to its transit-first policy and set a goal of reducing congestion in the urban core.

Others cities are doing it. London has had tremendous success with restrictions on driving in its central City (and a stiff price tag for doing it). New York is looking seriously at congestion pricing, and San Francisco ought to be pursuing Sup. Jake McGoldrick’s idea of bringing the concept here.

And the cold, hard fact is that fewer parking spaces means fewer cars. If the value of downtown high-rise condos is that they will encourage people to walk or take transit to work, why fill the basements with parking garages?

If San Franciscans want Muni buses to be able to negotiate rapidly and efficiently through the downtown area, why shouldn’t the city do everything possible to clear some of the car traffic out of the way?

Newsom was willing to support the Muni measure — and knew in advance, Peskin tells us, that parking limits were going to be part of it — but the minute his downtown backers started to yelp, he backed away. Now the mayor is in the position of opposing Muni reform — in the name of helping developers build more parking in a city that already has too many cars. That’s a terrible place to be for a mayor who tries to portray himself as an environmentalist. *